Digital technologies for farm advisory services in Africa: the example of Burkina Faso

What changes are brought about by the use of new information and communication technologies for the provision of farm advisory services in West Africa? The way advisory services to producers are changing, along with learning for farmers, are the subject of research by Chloé Alexandre, a #DigitAg PhD student in the Innovation joint research unit at CIRAD. Based on her observations and those of Malick Coulibaly, an SAADS engineer and #DigitAg intern in 2018, Chloe analyses the changes introduced by the emergence of digital technologies in advisory services in Burkina Faso. An overview on the occasion of the AgriNumA 2019 symposium, held in Dakar from 28 to 30 April.

Do ICTs bring about changes in advisory services or the practices of farm advisers, professional organisations and farmers? Digital technologies, and in particular ICTs, can improve farm advisory services in terms of coverage, effectiveness and relevance. However, studies in the field of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) show that “failures”, even if they are part of the innovation process, are common. Using an analysis framework for the construction of a digital farm advisory service, Chloé surveyed advisory service providers and analysed 15 farm advisory systems in the farming and livestock sector, used in Burkina Faso.

Very high demand for farm advisory services

Burkina Faso is an interesting country for this study because 70% of the population is rural and engaged in farming activities. The main advisory service providers are the state, NGOs and producer organisations. There is very high demand for advice and the numerous state services in place are struggling to cover the whole territory. “With one adviser for 1 000 farmers, digital technologies, and in particular ICTs, are promoted as one of the pillars for improving existing advisory services, especially in terms of their coverage and relevance”, says Chloé.

The Burkina Faso Ministry of Agriculture and Water Development has made it a key area of its policy, announced in 2017 during its agricultural campaign. Across the sub-Saharan region, there are many financial incentives for the development of digital solutions for agriculture. The amount of financial resources mobilised by international donors for digital solutions for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa stands at more than 180 million dollars (source: study of 175 CTA initiatives, forthcoming report). With ICTs, the goals set by advisory service providers are to facilitate the work of advisers, to make information directly accessible to farmers, in other words without the presence of an adviser, and also to improve the performance of advisory organisations.

 

Bama, Burkina Faso, July 2018: an adviser from the Bama rice producers’ union uses the Rice Advice decision support tool to provide a farmer with a crop management proposal for rice plantation and fertilisation, based on data provided by the farmer. The adviser visited the farmer’s plot to measure it.. © Chloé Alexandre, Cirad

A range of complementary actors

Digital technologies mobilise a wide range of actors, both public and private: state services, NGOs – many of them –, and producer organisations that provide advice and equip themselves with digital tools. New private operators from outside the agricultural world have also emerged. These include telephone operators, IT developers, data aggregators and analysts, etc. “One of my findings on the transformation of the advisory sector concerns the emergence of new operators, which have no prior competence in the agricultural sector, but are developing far-reaching services directly aimed at farmers”, adds Chloé. Forming partnerships is an important issue for these new actors: they associate themselves with expert producer organisations and NGOs specialising in rural development.

Overview of digital solutions and uses

In 2018, Chloé studied some 15 existing services, designed to be used with simple mobile phones or connected tools, smartphones, tablets and computers: “My selection criteria were not only the presence of ICTs to produce information content, but also the presence of ICTs to share and disseminate this information, whether mobilised by advisers or received directly by farmers”. Of the 15 services studied, 11 require a connected device, smartphone, tablet or computer, and four require only simple phones. This raises questions about the accessibility of these services, bearing in mind that the Internet penetration rate stood at 11% in 2015.

Among the systems used with simple mobile phones, there are two information systems on prices and markets – through a computer database, they send text messages to farmers’ phones –, one call centre, and one interactive voice response system. The latter can be used to consult pre-recorded voice messages.

The digital tools that require a smartphone, tablet or computer include three platforms that are accessible to a limited number of pre-identified users, one social network group (here, WhatsApp), three decision support services – with information collection applications stored in a cloud system –, and three video viewing websites. “These are downloadable and can therefore be disseminated via Bluetooth, with the advantage that a 2G phone is sufficient”, says Chloé.

Interactive tools: where do we stand?

One of the questions Chloé asked was whether these solutions make advisory services more interactive and more specific to farmers’ expectations. Did they produce more localised knowledge, and foster more knowledge sharing? “I noticed that most of the ICTs mobilised do not yet foster interactions or the co-construction of knowledge. Of the 15 tools, nine have only an information dissemination or collection dynamic. Their information is collected, processed and disseminated to farmers, but these farmers cannot exchange with someone from the service. If the farmers have questions, they cannot ask them, nor can they comment on or discuss the advice given. This is a problem, but we can qualify it: where the tools do not permit direct exchange, they are often relayed by local intermediaries, in other words a farmer receiving information on his phone can then discuss it with someone in the field, such as an adviser or a relay farmer. However six systems do enable this exchange through ICTs: these include platforms, which have chat rooms, call centres and social networks”.

Currently, ICTs only replace the physical presence of an adviser in a few cases. Instead, they provide a complementary information channel for farmers and support for advisers. “What is important is that ICTs are integrated into existing networks in the field, and more broadly into a multiple service system for farmers. This advice is more useful to farmers when supplemented by the services needed to conduct their agricultural activities: access to credit, to fertilisers, to seed, or to markets”, says Chloé. Integrating advice into a range of services can also help to identify solutions for funding advisory services. At present this remains, as is the case in the countries of the North, an unprofitable activity, and the producer organisations have understood this. Advisory services – for which farmers are often reluctant to pay – are typically financed by deductions from the profits of other paid services, such as access to inputs, crop storage solutions, etc. “In the context of Burkina Faso, we clearly see that these services are emerging. They were created two or three years ago, and it is still too early to discuss their impacts or to measure the benefits for farmers, with whom I still need to meet”, says Chloé. There are now numerous initiatives, and many services are being created, while some innovations are on standby or halted, and it is still difficult to know which ones will last.

At the level of farm advisers, the impacts are beginning to be seen. Malick Coulibaly, a CIRAD #DigitAg intern last year, worked with the UNPCB, the national union of cotton producers, on the organisation’s advisory system, which includes a digital tool used for organic cotton traceability, necessary for certification. Thanks to the information system developed, the advisers and actors responsible for monitoring the technical operations of farmers are becoming more efficient. Malick has identified alternative uses: for example, advisers can use their tablet to take photos and videos to share farmers’ practices with other farmers.

However, advisers point out the difficulty posed by their dual position: both in advisory services to help farmers to resolve specific problems, and in monitoring for certification. Some advisers struggle with this psychological pressure, which cannot be specifically attributed to digital technologies. These tools may reinforce their position as inspectors in the eyes of farmers. They can also become tools for controlling the activities of advisers and increase their feeling of being under surveillance by the organisations that employ them.

Building innovation networks

Service providers explain that one of the steps in developing a service is to build a good network of partners, to agree on the financing of the different expenditure items and, if the service becomes profitable, to negotiate the sharing of any value created. “At present, service providers are still struggling to set up operational networks of partners and to manage their relationships”, notes Chloé. “These networks are highly complex and changing. For example, the 321 interactive voice response system provided by Orange brings together a dozen partners: to provide funding, to develop content, to aggregate it and vocalise it, to promote it, etc. These resources and skills belong to different actors”.

Chloé also notes that in general, local organisations lack the means to develop these digital resources and therefore turn to donors. The majority of solutions are financed in the context of development projects, for short periods of three to four years, by international donors. This raises the question of their sustainability, as discussions on appropriation by local actors have not always been conducted during projects.

Another finding is that the major leading groups do not necessarily form local partnerships: “In Burkina Faso, for the 321 service, a global social enterprise, Viamo, is the main partner of Orange, and its content providers are international NGOs”, she says. The use of local startup incubators is very recent: “I have examples of young entrepreneurs with interesting digital solutions for agriculture, but for the time being in the field of marketing rather than advisory services”.

An analysis framework to co-construct digital advisory services

For the comparative analysis of these advisory services, Chloé made a digital adaptation of an analysis framework developed within the Innovation joint research unit by Guy Faure, Pierre Rebuffel and Dominique Violas. This can also be used by advisory service providers seeking to integrate digital solutions into an existing advisory service – especially producer organisations –, and those wishing to develop digital solutions. This framework takes into account all aspects, both front and back office, required for the existence and functioning of a digital advisory service. And, “over and above creating a technological solution, this framework is a tool for understanding all resources, methods and means used to develop an advisory service. The transformation of the system as a whole can be analysed when we modify one of its components”.

Chloe presented this analysis framework during the co-design workshop at the AgriNumA 2019 symposium, along with a communication on her first findings, which will be developed in a forthcoming article. After the demands of the collaborative work to develop digital advisory services, she will focus her research on new questions:

  • What skills do producer organisations need to develop in order to integrate these digital tools into their advisory services?
    The organisations undergo change when integrating digital technologies into advisory services, and some of them do not always have the internal capacities needed to ensure sustainability. What do producer organisations learn during these projects to integrate digital tools? Why do some organisations succeed in developing tools and financing them further to development projects, while others fail?
  • How do the services developed fit into local learning networks?
    We talk a lot about the adoption of services, but I believe a service will function if, in the field, among farmers, a routine or even an organisation is established, to ensure information is discussed and analysed. Can we identify factors explaining why in some cases farmers organise themselves to discuss information together, while others do not? How can a dynamic be created? I would like to analyse how information provided is integrated into local learning networks”, says Chloé.

Chloé’s forthcoming articles will hold the answers!

Contact: chloe.alexandre [AT] cirad.fr – Homepage